Maize (or corn) is one of the major food crops in many African countries. Though many scholastic texts state that maize was introduced to the continent by the Portuguese, a study of historical artefacts reveals that maize was part of the African diet even prior to colonialism.
In Zimbabwe, for example, there is the rusero, which is a pre-colonial sifting and winnowing basket used to remove chaff and weevils from maize. It is made from palm leaves. Then there is the guyo ne huyo, which is a domestic implement that is used to grind large maize kernels. Guyo ne huyo is an abrasive grinding stone that is also used for milling and processing different food items. Samples of these grinding stones have been discovered in almost every ancient monument or historical site in Zimbabwe. This indicates that maize cultivation has been a part of the local culture for centuries.
Merging Tradition with Modernity
As you travel across the continent, one of the things you will clearly witness is the unique blending of the old and the new. The people are able to creatively merge their traditional customs with new techniques and technologies. For example, during her visit to her hometown of Chigayo, Elizabeth experienced two distinct ways of grinding maize meal.
One of them is the modern way which involves using a mill grinder. She also witnessed the traditional way that involves the use of a mortar and pestle.
Using a Mill Grinder
In rural areas, women usually carry heavy loads on their heads. Which can be up to 10 times their body weight. It is a practice that is deeply rooted in African culture.
This is a very efficient way of transporting heavy loads such as a bag of maize meal for short distances. Indeed, Elizabeth went back to her roots as she carried a bag of maize kernels on her head all the way to the local mill grinder.
At the mill, she met Octavius Mudzimuwengwe, a young man who operates the local mill grinder. He was able to explain the process through which corn is turned into maize meal. This is described below:
Step 1: Sifting
When a customer brings their corn to the mill, the grain is first sifted using a machine to remove all kinds of impurities.
Step 2: Grinding
The corn is then transferred into the mill grinder. This particular mill grinder operates only on one engine. Thus, the operator had to remove and change the belt. Once the initial grinding is complete, the corn is transferred to the other side of the machine where it is ground and sifted further. And voila! You now have your ground and sifted maize meal. The maize meal is poured into a sack and the customer takes it home.
In keeping with tradition, Elizabeth carried the sack of milled maize on her head the same way she brought it in.
According to Octavius, the cost of grinding a bucket of corn is generally around five Zimbabwean dollars. But if you want to have your wheat, millet or sorghum milled, then you have to part with an extra dollar.
Now, you are probably wondering what the maize meal is used for. In Zimbabwe, the maize meal is used to make sadza. Sadza is a stiff porridge that is usually consumed at least twice a day and is generally accompanied by a savory dish of fish, meat, or vegetables. It may not sound like much of a meal on paper but you best believe that it tastes absolutely phenomenal!
Using a Mortar and Pestle
In traditional African culture, every kitchen must have a mortar and pestle. It is like a sacred symbol that defines the strength of the family.
In fact, in West African tradition, it is said that the head of the home should never see someone either taking away or bringing a mortar to his house. That would be sacrilegious. Better a home without a knife than without a mortar and pestle!
The mortar and pestle is an ancient way of crushing food. Think of it as a blender, food processor and spice grinder all rolled into one. Unlike the modern one found in the West, the traditional African mortar and pestle are much larger and are usually handcrafted. In Zimbabwe, it is referred to as Duri neMutsi.
After carrying the sack of maize meal on her head to her home village, Elizabeth watched as her mother used a mortar and pestle. Instead of maize meal, Elizabeth’s Sweet Mama showed how to do it by using some cassava. She placed some dried cassava in the pestle and got to work grinding the root into powder. Within no time, the air was filled with cassava powder and the familiar thumping sound of the mortar and pestle. The sound of a mortar and pestle is an indication that cooking has officially begun. Depending on the occasion (wedding, funeral, etc.), this pounding sound is often accompanied by a song.
Elizabeth’s mother made it look all so easy and simple because she has been doing this for many years. But if you are a beginner, rest assured that you will get a thorough arm and chest workout after using an African mortar and pestle.
In present-day Zimbabwe, maize is primarily grown by small-scale communal farms. However, there are other food crops that form part of the local diet, such as peanuts, fruits, and vegetables. If you do travel to Zimbabwe, make sure to sample some delightful specialties such as:
- Nnhedzi – Wild mushroom soup
- Mopane worms – Dried/fried insects added to stews for extra protein
- Mapopo candy – This is papaya cooked in sugar
- Game meat – How about some crocodile tail or warthog meat?
- Mupotohayi – Homemade cornbread
As you can see, Zimbabwe clearly has a rich culture and wide nutritional variety. There is always something that will satisfy your palate. The people may have embraced modernity but they have not forgotten their traditions. This is part of the spirit of Africa.
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